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Crimea’s Ukrainian underground

Two years after Crimea became part of the Russian Federation, most traces of Ukrainian culture have effectively disappeared from the peninsula. Русский Українською

In Crimea today, Ukrainian culture is an unwanted stepdaughter: there are no books in Ukrainian in most shops, and even when there are a few left, people are wary of selling them. Ukrainian theatre workshops are being closed down on flimsy pretexts and radio stations try to avoid playing Ukrainian music. Only the people who travel back and forth to the mainland make any difference.

“You won’t find a thing: it’s a dead loss,” warned a Kyiv colleague who left Crimea after the “Russian Spring” of 2014. “Books in Ukrainian? They’ve all been thrown out.”

It’s hard to say where he got the story about the books, but it’s true that Ukrainian culture is hard to find in Crimea today.

“You’re one of them, aren’t you?”

Sevastopol. There are rows of retail kiosks by the bus stop, including one selling books. It has six shelves, and stocks everything from board books for toddlers to A History of the Russian State.

“Do you have anything in Ukrainian?” I ask the bookseller.

The lanky, long haired bloke behind the counter tears himself away from R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf sci-fi trilogy and looks at me as though I’m an idiot: “We’ve never had any.” And adds, still gazing at me with a smirk, “we don’t import them now either”.

“Well, yes,” I think to myself, “why would this city, the home of Russian military glory, need Ukrainian books?”

This guy in the leather jacket isn’t the only person who doesn’t understand why someone might need a Ukrainian-language book in Crimea, and especially in Sevastopol

As I turn to leave and go to open the door, the guy asks: “Why are you asking anyway?”

“I’m learning the language.”

“I’ve been working here for six years,” he says, “and nobody’s ever asked before.”

This guy in the leather jacket isn’t the only person who doesn’t understand why someone might need a Ukrainian-language book in Crimea, and especially in Sevastopol. Each time I ask about something in Ukrainian, booksellers give me odd looks.

“Are you a khokhol [pejorative term for Ukrainians] or something?” sneers the older woman selling books by the metre. A minute earlier, she used the same tone with a man asking for a book entitled We Saw Hell on Earth: On the 70th Anniversary of the Deportation of the Crimean Tatar People.

“I only have Russian books,” the old woman says. “Even when we were part of Ukraine, I never stocked anything else”.

“Why?” I ask.

“We’ve had enough of you lot.”

“What about Gogol? Do you sell him?”

“Why wouldn’t we sell him? He’s a Russian writer,” she says, pointing at a shelf.

“Russian-Ukrainian,” I say.

She cuts me off: “He wrote in Russian”

Simferopol, Crimea, 2015. Photo: (с) Alexander Aksakov / Getty Images. All rights reserved.Prior to Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation, Ukrainian books used to be on sale in Sevastopol in bookshops, in fact they occupied a prominent place on the shelves. But now the Atrium bookshop on Vakulinchuk Street has neither a Ukrainian literature section, nor any books in the language.

“We stopped stocking them immediately after the referendum,” Svetlana, a buyer for the shop, tells me. “They weren’t big sellers even when we were in Ukraine, and it took around four months to get rid of the last batch. I have a clear memory of the last one I sold; it was a Ukrainian version of Little Red Riding Hood.”

According to Svetlana, the shop has no way of getting hold of books in Ukrainian: they are only available in mainland Ukraine. “Also, they can only be bought and sold in hryvnias, which we can’t deal with here and don’t intend to.”

Atrium does, however, sell works by two 19th century Ukrainian writers, national poet Taras Shevchenko and novelist and short story writer Mariya Vilinska, who wrote under the male pseudonym Marko Vovchok – but only in Russian translation.

When I find that even Foliant, Sevastopol’s underground bookshop, doesn’t have a single book in Ukrainian, I realise I need to look for them in another city.

Simferopol, March 2014. Photo (c): Spencer Platt / Getty Images. All rights reserved.But even in the capital of Simferopol, buying a Ukrainian book is no easy task. Before March 2014, books in Ukrainian accounted for up to 30% of the stock of local bookshops, but they disappeared after the referendum, for the same reasons as those in Atrium. The necessity of trading in hryvnias and transporting them from the mainland, which make imports impossible in terms of both logistics and purchasing power.

At a certain point I decide to find out whether it might be possible to print Ukrainian books in Crimea itself: Ukrainian is an official language in Crimea, after all.

However, when I ask Georgy Shalovalov, the director of Tavrida, Crimea’s state-owned printing house, about Ukrainian literature, all he can say is that there have been no orders for books in Ukrainian since Crimea’s annexation by Russia, although the peninsula’s bookselling chains would be welcome to use Tavrida should the need arise.

A run on Ukrainian books

I finally manage to buy a book in Ukrainian in Bukva, the fifth shop I visit in Simferopol, although the manager’s reaction is familiar. This imposing gentleman in a jacket, with a name badge reading “Maksim”, raises his eyebrows in amazement at my question and answers with another question: “Why do you want to buy one?”

“As a present for my relations. In Nikolaev [south Ukrainian town, Mykolaiv],” I tell him.

“But they can buy one for themselves. Are you collecting trophies, is that it?”

I don’t get the reference to trophies, and ask my question again.

“All right, come with me.”

There is only one shelf of Ukrainian literature in this large shop, and all the books on it are children’s books.

“When we were part of Ukraine this whole room, one out of four, was devoted to literature in Ukrainian,” the manager tells me, “and books sold even faster here than in the rooms with books in Russian. Here in Crimea, although [he looks at his smart phone] 24% of the population was Ukrainian, very few bookshops stocked books in the language.”

There is only one shelf of Ukrainian literature in this large shop, and all the books on it are children’s books

“Why was that?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Probably people thought they wouldn’t sell.”

“So how did the referendum, change things?”

“Well, haven’t you heard? At one school in the Chistensky district they publicly tore up Ukrainian books, just like they did Ukrainian passports.” In October 2014, the staff at a Simferopol school gathered all the school’s books in Ukrainian and about Ukraine, and ripped them up in front of the children.

“And what about the shop?”

“We, on the contrary, had a complete run on books. The whole section was bought up within two months, although the stock had been completely updated just six months before. We had three different editions of Shevchenko’s poetry, as well as other turn of the century poets such as Lesya Ukrainka and Ivan Franko, and political works by Dmitry Vydrin [contemporary political analyst]. And of course, Russian books in Ukrainian translation.”

Sevastopol, August 2014. Photo (c) Alexander Aksakov / Getty Images. All rights reserved.Now the shelves of the old Ukrainian department are stacked with world classics: Moliere, Hugo, Jack London. One customer has carelessly thrown a pro-Kremlin expose of the links between oil and global politics called Cherchez la neft on top of the Ray Bradbury novels.

Now the shelves of the old Ukrainian department are stacked with world classics: Moliere, Hugo, Jack London

I am allowed to photograph the few Ukrainian books still on sale, and buy a copy of Aleksandr Grin’s classic fantasy Crimson Sails.

“Masha, do you remember when we last sold a book in Ukrainian?” Maksim asks the cashier. “Last year, I think.”

Lost in translation

Morye, or The Sea, is the only music station with a studio on the peninsula. It is state-owned, and colleagues say that they will only talk to me because we have known each other since we were students.

“We may not be part of Ukraine now, but people here like Ukrainian music,” says producer Anastasia Silina. “A fifth of all the requests we get by phone and on social media is for Ukrainian music. The most popular band is, of course, Okean Elzy: we play their hits every day, sometimes more than once. But old songs are also popular – ‘Red Flower’ [written in 1968, but now widely believed to be a folk song], ‘The Bird-Cherry Tree’ and so on. One old guy recently asked us to play an old Ukrainian folk song.”

“Ruslana is completely banned since she was active on the Maidan, and the rock band Vopli Vidopliassova for the same reason”

Anastasia pauses. “But there are restrictions on Ukrainian things. We can’t play [the Crimean Tatar singer] Jamala, for example, and especially not her current hit, ‘1944’, which is representing Ukraine at this year’s Eurovision Song contest. We get requests for it, and try to avoid replying to fans on social media, but what can you say?”

“Who else can’t you play?” I ask.

“Ruslana is completely banned since she was active on the Maidan, and the rock band Vopli Vidopliassova for the same reason. Not to mention Lyapis Trubetskoi’s hit ‘Warriors of the World’, which was a Maidan anthem.”

“But what about Russian rockers like Makarevich or Grebenshchikov [both caused controversy in Russia for expressing sympathy to/solidarity with Ukraine] – can you play them?”

“Yeah, they’re OK.”

“What was it like before, when Crimea was Ukrainian? Was there a lot of Ukrainian music on the radio?”

May 2014: Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, soloist from Okean Elzy, performs at the “20 years together“ concert in the Lvov Arena stadium. Photo (c): Pavel Palamarchuk / Visual RIAN. All rights reserved.“At that time there were four music stations, none of them state-owned. We at Assol, which was closed down on 31 March 2015, had a strict rule: to play whatever listeners asked. And a lot of people asked for Ukrainian rock – Okean Elzy, Vopli Vidopliassova and Gogol Bordello’s ‘Tsyganiada’. Young people were really into this stuff – it was more popular than many international rock legends like Depeche Mode, Kiss or The Stooges.”

“And now Crimeans can’t hear this music on the radio anymore?”

“Apart from us, there are general Russian transmitters that we can catch, and further north you can tune into Ukrainian stations, where you can even listen to Lapis and Jamala.”

The final curtain

The Svitanok theatrical workshop functioned in Simferopol until December 2015.

“I am very proud of my project,” says the theatre’s founder Aleksandr Polchenko. “We worked for 22 years and during that time we trained a host of good actors – 300 young people learned their trade from us. Our children acted in theatre productions, the popular TV serial The Crimean Cherry Tree and the film The Battle of Sevastopol, where little Sveta Osadchenko recited the poem ‘Kill a Fascist!’ – have you seen that scene? Ironically, we were closed down for our alleged fascism.”

On 19 December, last year the workshop put on a performance of Song of the Amazon, based on the stories of the Crimean writer Viktor Stus, in the main hall of Simferopol’s Pioneer Palace. “The performance took place in Ukrainian, as usual,” Polchenko tells me. “It was the story of warrior women fighting for the independence of their homeland. On the day after the show the cultural centre’s director Valery Kochetov demanded a videotape of the performance, and two days later they held a ‘postmortem’. It was amusing to hear that a small girl wearing a gold-coloured dress, with a crown on her head, looked too much like the Statue of Liberty, and that this was ‘propaganda for American values’. And we were also told that the children shouldn’t have been wearing traditional embroidered shirts - this counted as ‘backwoods nationalism’.”

The studio was closed down. Fifty students were training there at the time.

“There is no longer a single Ukrainian theatrical workshop either in Simferopol or anywhere else in Crimea,” says Nina Savostyanova, mother of nine-year old Dasha. “There’s nowhere else for the children to go, and Dasha’s dream was to go into acting.”

The costs of culture

Leonid Kuzmin, one of the founders of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre (UKC), believes that Ukrainians’ biggest problem in Crimea is their lack of communal identity, which makes it difficult to protect their culture. I meet up with him in a city centre café. He is a pretty well known figure in Crimea, but he’s not welcome everywhere.

“My friends run this café, so we can hang out here, no trouble,” he tells me. Since Crimea became part of Russia, Leonid has been arrested a dozen times and beaten up once — so safety is on his mind.

“Ukrainian culture has had to go underground in Crimea”

“Ukrainian culture has had to go underground in Crimea,” he says. “You can’t find books in the shops, and libraries have put their Ukrainian literature holdings into storage to keep them safe from prying eyes. And, naturally, Ukrainian bands don’t gig here anymore.”

At the end of 2014, when it became clear that everything Ukrainian on the peninsula was “closing down”, Leonid decided to set up a Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Simferopol.

In February 2016, several residents of the Gagarinsky Region organised a petition to remove a statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko from the local administration building. Photo via

“There were three of us with the same idea – my Euromaidan friends Veldar Shukurdjiev and Lyonya Terletsky and myself. We began by sticking up flyers with ‘Ukrainian Cultural Centre’ and a Facebook address all over Simferopol, and to our amazement, by the next day 90 people had signed up to it. Then we publicised ourselves on Ukrainian language media and got loads of messages of support in response.”

In January 2015 Leonid appealed for public aid for the new centre.

“We asked people living in mainland Ukraine to send us books they didn’t need, CDs of Ukrainian music, portraits of Ukrainian writers. We talked to people at the Ministry of Culture, who agreed to take delivery of anything we received. In March I visited Kyiv and came back with nine boxes of books, CDs, posters – and even two embroidered shirts – a fine collection of ‘tamizdat’. We decided it was time to launch ourselves in public.”

In May 2015, Kuzmin and Shukurdjiev held a press conference in Simferopol where they announced that the UCC was planning to organise singing festivals and literary readings, as well as running lectures and courses in traditional crafts and Ukrainian history, language and literature.

“We hoped that the officials would take notice of us,” Leonid tells me, “that they would want to fund this focal point of Ukrainian culture in the peninsula – Ukrainian is, after all, one of Crimea’s official languages, along with Russian and Crimean Tatar.

“But no one has shown any interest, not only here but in Ukraine itself: the president’s office told us bluntly that they had no money. Up until the blackout in November, we were still talking to a businessman about renting premises, but as soon as Ukraine switched off the power he didn’t want to have anything to do with us.”

“But we are still at the centre of Ukrainian cultural life in Crimea: we function as a library, lending Ukrainian books to our Facebook subscribers. And interestingly, we have lots of requests for children’s books. People will also happily come from other places to borrow books – from Yalta, Sevastopol, even Kerch. And three times in the last year we organised lectures and debates on Ukrainian history and literature.

“But for some reason even this innocuous activity still irritates the Crimean government,” he adds. “Last March, we decided to lay flowers in front of the Shevchenko monument in Simferopol on the anniversary of the poet’s death. There were about 20 of us there. We laid the flowers, read some of his poems and were just about to disperse when the police arrived. I was arrested, along with two others, and we were then held for four hours in a police station, where they tried to convince us to ‘move to Ukraine’.”

However, according to Leonid there are signs of a possible thaw in Crimean attitudes to Ukrainian culture. In December 2015, Oleg Leus, a journalist, set up a Ukrainian National-Cultural Society, which so far has only 20 members but is being actively publicised. There are also plans for a series of Ukrainian literary evenings, a singing workshop and reading room.

“If this takes off in Sevastopol,” says Leonid, “there will be two centres of Ukrainian activity in Crimea. And then we might be able to emerge from the underground.”

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